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THEN AND NOW: Rich Balka, Home Rubber Co.

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Rich Balka, Home Rubber Co.
Rich Balka, Home Rubber Co.

TRENTON, N.J.—For Rich Balka, owner and president of Home Rubber Co. in Trenton, if one thing is different than seven years ago, it's the growing prevalence of imports in some of the niche areas his company services.

In particular, one firm that handles imported products for sale in the U.S. has gotten strong in dock hose products. “Whether it's because they have a better understanding of the market, or they now have expanded to the point where they're carrying so much inventory for our niche in the industry, they've certainly began to creep into areas that were previously reserved for domestic-only manufacturing,” Balka said.

At this point, Home Rubber hasn't done much to combat the threat, but is working on opening up new business, customers and markets, he said. The specialty hose manufacturer recently hired a new outside salesman to cover more ground in the industry.

For Home Rubber, Balka said the key to remaining competitive as a manufacturer in the U.S. is operating in niche areas and making sure it provides a quality product in a timely manner.

He doesn't really see any new obstacles to producing goods in the U.S. “The landscape really hasn't changed. We're still dealing with U.S. tax laws, we're still dealing with U.S. labor rates, and we're still dealing with regulators of various types,” he said. “While the numbers might change from one way to another, it's all the same concepts.”

While most companies seem to have recovered from the recession, one of the biggest changes the Home Rubber owner sees is the unpredictability of the marketplace. “All of the known cycles seem to have gone out of the market, so it's much more difficult trying to forecast business. The changes seem to occur much more quickly and much more severely now than they did prior to the recession.”

Tax incentives coming out of the recession centered on getting companies to purchase equipment. The unintended consequence of that, he said, is that while manufacturers become more efficient, there's often less need to hire more workers and the long-range unemployment rates will remain higher.

Home Rubber has added another calendering line and done some general infrastructure improvements at its Trenton factory. Employment is up since the recession, but it still isn't to pre-recession levels, Balka said.

Manufacturing gains helped lead the nation out of the recession, he said, with most producers having strong growth for two to three years. But many Balka has spoken with—other than those dealing in oil and gas—said that 2013 was fairly level with 2012.

“The odd thing is if you believe the media, the general economy is improving, so we should be seeing that improvement in our industry as well,” he said. “We used to look at our business and feel like it was a harbinger for the overall economy. Now there's a dislocation between manufacturing and whatever else is going on.”